Cain's Candidacy Changes The Politics Of Race
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. With the 2012 election now a year away, it's actually possible that both major parties will nominate African-Americans. Three years ago, Barack Obama changed the conversation about race and politics; now, Herman Cain changes it again.
Many liberals question Cain's knowledge, intelligence and qualifications. Cornel West even said Cain should get off the symbolic crack pipe. Some conservatives say liberals are threatened by an uppity black who dares to leave the liberal plantation. Cain himself says his fellow African-Americans have been brainwashed by the Democratic Party.
We'd like to hear from you. How does the rise of Herman Cain change the question of politics and race? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Ray Takeyh on The Opinion Page this week. He wrote an op-ed titled "How Iran Lost Iraq." We'll also talk about the looming U.N. report on Iran's nuclear capabilities. But first, race and politics. In a few minutes, Republican Congressman Allen West will join us.
But we begin with Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University, the author of the book "Whose Black Politics?: Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership." And she joins us from studios at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Good to have you with us today.
ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And as we learned today of a fourth woman who accuses Herman Cain of inappropriate behavior, I guess we have to add the explosive word sex to those of race and politics.
GILLESPIE: Yes, we do.
CONAN: And that changes things, doesn't it?
GILLESPIE: Well, it will be really interesting to hear what this woman has to say. It's somewhat unfortunate that we're on now, as she is making her comments. If she appears to be credible, then that could do a lot of damage to Herman Cain. Already, his favorability ratings have taken a hit in the last week, and I'm sure that there will be more polls that are forthcoming. So we just have to wait to see what the long-term impact of this particular allegation will be.
I think most pundits had already predicted that Herman Cain wasn't going to be the Republican nominee, but we just didn't know how it was going to end. This may be the end story, but then again, nobody expected Cain to get this far. So we have to wait and see.
CONAN: Exactly. Some had written him off as a marginal candidate from the very beginning. None of them expected to be leading Mitt Romney in many polls at this stage in the race. But again, we shall have to see about the impact of this. But Herman Cain's campaign has been calling this a smear, an attempt by the liberal media to, well, put him back in his place.
GILLESPIE: Well, there are a couple of things to kind of talk to with respect to that particular side of the story. This is clearly an attack. Whether or not the liberal media is responsible for it, or whether or not this is coming from a Republican who supports one of the other presidential candidates remains to be seen.
It's been really interesting how Cain has pivoted in terms of who's to blame for the story in terms of trying to elicit sympathy. But until we know the source of the story, it's really hard for us to judge.
I think the fact that Cain has actually blamed both the liberal media and the Perry campaign for this story sort of is evidence of how he's mishandled this whole episode, by not getting ahead of the story, though Politico gave him ample opportunity to do so. And it shows I guess how nimble his campaign actually was not in this particular instance, that you now blame two very disparate people for, you know, being the source of this particular allegation.
CONAN: Let's go beyond this particular allegation, if you will, and get to the broader criticism that Cain raises about the conventions of an African-American, or as he calls himself, an American black conservative, this is a challenge to the conventional - well, I think the latest poll I saw was something like 95 percent of African-Americans say they support Barack Obama.
GILLESPIE: So and that's pretty consistent with a percentage of black voters who voted for President Obama in 2008. You know, I wish it were as easy as Mr. Cain suggests, but in all honesty, the story is much more complex and nuanced. Blacks have rational reasons for supporting the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party is not a panacea for all racial ills, and their record in terms of promoting blacks internally within their party structure leaves a lot to be desired. But on the whole, since Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964, blacks have perceived the Democratic Party to be the stronger party on issues related to civil rights.
And as long as those issues are salient to African-Americans, and as long as the Democratic Party is the clear party with strengths in that particular area, it's going to be very difficult for any Republican candidate, regardless of his or her race, to be able to make inroads in the African-American community.
It's interesting, and I think it's a sign of progress that somebody like Herman Cain can rise through the ranks of the Republican Party and even in this primary season, but it's going to take more than just descriptive representation within the Republican Party to win African-Americans over.
CONAN: Some have treated Herman Cain first as a marginal candidate and then with some contempt. And I'm just quoting here from - this is a piece in Politico. This is the magazine that originally reported the allegations about sexual harassment, but this is their chief political columnist Roger Simon.
He quotes Herman Cain: Some Cain supporters, the - I'm ready for the gotcha question, and they're already starting to come, Cain told a reporter. When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-bekistan, I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know? Some Cain supporters say this is part of his down-to-Earth charm, but ignorance on the part of a president can be dangerous. It is definitely dangerous. Cain did not know until he was corrected recently that China possesses a nuclear arsenal.
Now, is this in the realm of legitimate criticism? Does this wander across the line?
GILLESPIE: I think that it's legitimate criticism, and I think it's important to note that these types of criticism are not racially motivated. In a normal election year, where we didn't have an economy so bad and where the Republican field is weak according to what voters think, Herman Cain would be a footnote. He wouldn't have gained much traction.
But given the level of dissatisfaction with the direction of the economy, given the disappointment in the Obama administration in terms of how they have handled the economy and given the fact that the presumed frontrunner in the Republican field is not the overwhelming favorite son of Republicans and coupled with the fact that you have a Tea Party revolt, where you have this war between people who want to get back to conservative first principles versus the establishment, that opened up a lot of opportunities for Herman Cain to gain the traction that he has.
Ultimately at the end of the day, it's those weaknesses, the lack of familiarity with foreign policy, the lack of familiarity with domestic policy beyond his 9-9-9 plan on issues of taxation are probably what would be his undoing and what would actually be his Achilles' heel not just in the primary but also in a general election.
CONAN: We're talking with Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University. We want to hear your thoughts, too. How has the rise of Herman Cain changed the discussion about race and politics? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. David's(ph) on the line, David with us from Keane in New Hampshire.
CONAN: Hi, David.
DAVID: I want to say I think it's great that Herman Cain is running, and how has it changed? Well, it affirms that African-Americans are on the right-hand side of things, and - though I don't think he has a snowball's chance, but - and also the fact that he's dark. And I think that's important, too, to an extent. I mean, it says something, but, you know...
CONAN: It says something, am I hearing you right, about the Republican Party?
DAVID: It says something about the Republican Party, but it says that there are African-Americans in the Republican Party. And it affirms the African-Americans of the Republican Party and says it's OK for you, an African-American, to be a Republican. You don't just have to be a Democrat.
CONAN: And that's an argument that certainly Herman Cain has been making, Andra Gillespie.
GILLESPIE: Certainly, and, you know, we need to acknowledge that blacks have been Republicans for generations, more than a century now. Initially, most African-Americans, after the Civil War, were Republicans because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and of course he freed the slaves.
African-Americans in general operate with a concept that political psychologists call linked fate. It was a term that was coined by Michael Dawson in 1994. So what that means is that when assessing policy preferences and even assessing partisan preferences and voting behavior, African-Americans think about overall racial group interests as a proxy for their individual interests.
So it's important to not look at blacks just as individuals, but it's important to look at how African-Americans operate socially in the United States as a group. And while blacks have made tremendous progress, particularly in the last 50 years, there's still many areas where blacks fall behind other groups.
And so because of that, blacks still perceive their interests as being tied to that of the group, and so they look at group interests as a proxy for their individual interests. And since as a group the Democratic Party's platform tends to favor policies that blacks would support or that they would perceive would benefit blacks as a group, that's why they tend to support the Republican Party.
I don't want to discount Cain's presence in the Republican Party or to discount the fact that there have always been black Republicans. But black Republicans tend to favor individual preferences over group preferences, and that tends to explain their voting behavior. So while it's great that Herman Cain as an individual has been able to rise through the ranks of this primary season, that still doesn't negate the fact that blacks perceive the Republican Party as a whole as being weaker in terms of addressing issues of concern to African-Americans as a group.
And until there's change on that regard or until the racial climate changes in the United States, we're probably going to see the same type of pattern that we've witnessed for the last 45 years.
CONAN: Well, one of those black Republicans joins us now, Republican Congressman Allen West of Florida, an African-American conservative elected to office in 2010 with support of the Tea Party. And he joins us by phone from Florida. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us today.
REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: (Technical difficulties), it's a pleasure to be with you.
CONAN: And few can have more insight into what Herman Cain is experiencing both in the general campaign and in the past couple of weeks. Do you think that he's being treated differently than a white candidate would be?
WEST: Well, I just think that when you rise into the political strata, you're going to get attacked no matter what. I will tell you that when you do come in as a black conservative, you do cause some concerns from the liberal side of the house. I had some pretty vicious attacks against me down here, accusing me of being the only black member of a white supremacist motorcycle gang, a drug dealer and then dealing with prostitution.
But I counted it as a victory because when no one could talk about the issues, they resort to those silly sideshow antics.
CONAN: I'm sure you're not saying necessarily that the charges against Herman Cain are silly.
WEST: Well, I just say this: Let's focus on the issues. I think that's the most important thing. And I did not say that the allegations of sexual harassment are silly. I think that any time you have to deal with sexual harassment, that's a very serious charge. But once again, they're alleged. The people have not come forth. So I'm not here to debate what happened with Herman Cain 20 years ago.
CONAN: Stay with us if you will, Congressman Allen West of Florida, also Andra Gillespie. We'd like your thoughts, as well. How does the rise of Herman Cain change the discussion about race and politics? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. A few minutes ago, a fourth woman, the first to go public, accused Herman Cain of inappropriate sexual advances. Sharon Bialek said at a news conference in New York that she approached Cain in 1997 hoping for a job. He offered to help her, he said. At one point, he groped her.
The Cain campaign responded with a statement saying all allegations are completely false, that Herman Cain never harassed anyone. We'll continue to follow that story and bring you any updates as they come in.
All of this playing out amidst an intense political campaign for president and dueling charges of racism both from the left and the right. We're talking today about race and politics, and we'd like to hear from you. How does the rise of Herman Cain change the question of politics and race? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our website, as well. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Congressman Allen West, a Republican from Florida's 22nd District, and Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University in Georgia. She wrote the book "Whose Black Politics?: Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership." And Congressman West, I wanted to follow up: We've heard some dismissals of Herman Cain's knowledge about both international and national affairs and his inexperience in running for political office.
Of course, many say that's refreshing. Again, do you find that he is being dismissed unfairly?
WEST: Well, I think that when you are asked questions, if you are running for president of the free world here in the United States of America, you're supposed to have some working knowledge of foreign affairs and policy, national security, as well.
Of course I, you know, 22 years in the military, I've been - had the benefit of, you know, doing strategic security studies as part of my military education, as well as being deployed. So I think I'm very comfortable with answering those type of questions. But I think that it's fair that people should expect that if you are running for president, you should have some sort of working knowledge on the prevalent issues, especially (technical difficulties) what is happening in various parts of our world, be it the Middle East or China or Pakistan.
CONAN: Just as, of course, it's fair to criticize the president's policies. At this point, I don't think that draws too many charges of racism.
WEST: Say again?
CONAN: Just as it is of course fair to question the president's policies. At this point, I don't think that draws too many charges of racism.
WEST: Well, no, it's not about racism. It's about (technical difficulties). I think that that's what we have to move on and understand is that, you know, this is about decision-making. It's about policy. It's about, you know, what happens, you know, 10, 20, 30 years down the road based upon some of the domestic or national security decisions and policies that are being made, tax policies, regulatory policies.
So to have those points of inquiry has nothing to do to reflect back on the person's skin color. It has everything to reflect back on his decision-making and leadership.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Sherman's(ph) with us from Lafayette, Louisiana.
SHERMAN: Good morning.
CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.
SHERMAN: Yes, I was calling, I find it quite refreshing to see two black men or the possibility of two black men face off in a national election of this capacity. And as a business owner, I also think that it's very refreshing and promising to see a businessman step up to the arena.
As far as the racism aspect of it, no, I think everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions and activities. The scrutiny that he's under, it's probably the first time that he's had to undergo anything like this because he's never been in the political arena before.
CONAN: He did run for Senate in Georgia but nothing quite like this. You're absolutely right about that. And Andra Gillespie, you can't ignore the historic aspect of this, that it's a long way from here to there, but the idea that there are two serious African-American candidates for the presidency.
GILLESPIE: Oh, this is a milestone in American history, and I would be loath to deny that case. So, you know, this is a great thing. You know, we have to actually see it happen, but, you know, it's great when people can run under both party banners, and we should be applauding that.
I think probably what causes a lot of consternation on the left is that they probably would prefer that the leading Republican nominee for the presidency on the Republican side who happened to be black had more of the credentials of Congressman West in terms of his military experience and in terms of having served in prior elective office. So that's what makes Herman Cain's candidacy more of a long shot.
And to kind of get at the whole business experience, you know, part of the reason why these allegations have such traction is not just how the Cain campaign mishandled the PR aspect of it early in the week, but this also really undermines this notion of Herman Cain as business leader who can apply that business savvy and that management experience to the White House.
People are looking for somebody who conducts his business with integrity and in an ethical manner, and this really kind of undercuts that. In addition, you have to keep in mind that slightly over half of the electorate is female, and this is the type of allegation that could really undermine support amongst a crucial voting bloc.
CONAN: Sherman, thanks very much for the call.
SHERMAN: Thank you for listening.
WEST: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Ted(ph) in Groton in New York: I see no racial aspect to Cain's candidacy but rather a rags-to-riches American story of perseverance. His main rival in that scope is Rick Perry, who is touting his dirt-farmer roots as a way of gaining some level of credibility.
Perry might actually win that contest over Cain's growing up as the son of a chauffeur, and Allen West, both - it's hard to overstress the importance of a candidate's narrative today, the story of the background they bring to the race.
WEST: Well, I think it's absolutely right. I think that the American people are really looking for individuals that they can connect to, and I think that it's important that in a presidential election cycle, image is preeminent, almost, before you get to articulating your message, and when you have those people that are reflective of an American dream.
You know, I was born and raised right there in the inner city of Atlanta, Georgia, and I know that Herman Cain went to Archer High School, and his wife went to Price High School. I went to Grady High School. And, you know, to have that type of aspect - my father and mother grew up in south Alabama, south Georgia. And my dad was a corporal in World War II.
And I was the first one that he wanted to see to go on to be an officer in the Army, and now we have the next generation of young officers, my nephew, his grandson, Herman West III. So I think those are the type of stories that inspire Americans and help us to understand the exceptionalism of this country.
But I also want to say that I think it's important that we look in the black community. We need to be players in the entire political spectrum because I don't think that anybody out there in your listening audience, Neal, invests all their money in one mutual fund or one stock account. So I think the important story that we have here is the preeminence and prominence of African-American voices not just in the Democrat Party, where it pretty much always has been, but now even more so in the Republican Party and as conservatives.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Abel(ph), Abel with us from Clemson in South Carolina.
ABEL: Thanks for taking my call.
ABEL: I think that this whole Herman Cain candidacy is more Memorex than what's going to be reality. I think that he's polling well, but no one's voted yet, and I think that race tends to trump politics, even in the South. I know that Mr. West won in Florida, but Florida is different from much - most parts of the South.
And I think that once people get in the voting booth, and even though they might like the 9-9-9, but as people begin to look at Cain and look at the fact that he is African-American and they don't know all of his positions, I think that eventually his candidacy will fall apart.
CONAN: Andra Gillespie, Abel raises a couple of points, one that this may be ephemeral, and if you look at the polling numbers recently, there are - not just for Herman Cain but I think for a lot of Republican candidates at this point, their support is what they say is soft, a small, relatively small percentage says they were absolutely prepared to vote for him.
But there's also the sort of lingering question that sometimes people tell pollsters one thing but do another thing in the booth.
GILLESPIE: Certainly, so there are a couple of issues that relate to that. One, it's always important to keep in mind that polls reflect attitudes for a given moment in time, and we can't extrapolate to the future based on them. So we know based on polls that took place, you know, from Tuesday to Thursday last week what people thought, and they could change their minds. And that change is legitimate, and that's not immediately going to register.
But the other question is whether or not there's a Bradley effect. So this was studied a lot during the 2008 campaign cycle, and the conclusion...
CONAN: And refers to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
GILLESPIE: When he ran for governor of California, and it turns out he didn't poll at the same rate that he registered, that voters actually sort of registered their support for him and the polls. So the actual outcome of the election was different than what the pollsters had predicted he would get. And the same thing happened for Doug Wilder when he won the governorship in Virginia in 1989, as well.
So most people assumed that when you're looking at black candidates that whatever they poll is going to be different than what the actual outcome of the election is going to be. That wasn't true in 2008. We could even look at a racially polarized election in Tennessee in 2006, where Harold Ford ran against Bob Corker. And the actual outcome of the election was within the margin of errors of the last polls that were done the weekend before the election.
So there is little evidence to suggest that people are misrepresenting their vote intentions to pollsters before they get to the polls. Given the fact that we're, you know, a little less than two months away from the Iowa caucus, there's a lot that could change between now and then. And so the soft support or even the strong support that we see for Herman Cain or any of the Republican candidates at this point could change as new developments arise and as voters factor in new information.
So if it turns out that the sexual harassment allegations continue to have legs, that might undermine Herman Cain's support. And we'll look at that as the explanation for why his support deteriorated and not because people censored themselves so that they didn't appear to be racist in front of pollsters.
CONAN: Let's go next to Richard. Richard with us from Jacksonville.
RICHARD: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. And just to be brief, you were saying how has this changed the conversation. First, it's changed the conversation - the mere fact that we're having a conversation is what has changed. But also that it forces Americans to look beyond just black and white and start seeing race as not just a disqualifier but also something that brings maybe a different flavor to the table. But most importantly, it forces us to reflect on the fact that America's demographics is changing, and African-Americans have grown in strength that the media is not reporting over the last 10 years. In fact, the reporters say that African-American income, 75,000 and above, has increased by 65 percent over the last 10 years. And that's what we're beginning to see now as African-Americans are beginning to flex their, not only political muscle, but their economic muscle, especially in this down economy.
CONAN: Congressman West?
WEST: Yeah. I mean, I'd have to agree with what was just said because getting to what statement Dr. Gillespie made, what really are the interests of the black community now? Once upon a time, you know, someone could have said that it was more so about focus on the inner city, social welfare policies, civil rights, things of that. But, you know, even still, you have to understand that, you know, Senator Everett Dirksen did kind of help the civil rights legislation get the push - get pushed through.
But now I think that when you talk about, you know, those policies, you know, and reflect them to the African-American community, well, I mean, there are economic policies that affect the community. And we want to see small businesses grow. And what are the right type of tax and regulatory policies that will enable small businesses, not just to grow on Main Street, quote, unquote, "white America," but get back into the inner city.
When you understand, you know, recently, when we had unemployment in the black community at an all-time high, it was like 16.7 percent, between 20 to 25 percent for black adult males and close to 45, 46 percent for black teenagers, then people are starting to really ask the questions based upon objective assessment and the right type of policies that are going to enable us to have that growing black middle-income class and, you know, lower to upper income class. And I think that that is what you're seeing a change, and that's why you're starting to see the black community play all across the political spectrum.
CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Congressman Allen West of Florida. Also with us, Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University in Georgia. Her book, "Whose Black Politics?: Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an email question from Margaret(ph) in Miami. Don't forget that blacks are very critical of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. They, of course, had important positions in the Bush Cabinet. Colin Powell, secretary of state, later, Condoleezza Rice as well. She was national security adviser. Blacks were not initially for Obama, continues Margaret. He was, quote, unquote, "too white for most blacks." But when whites made him the winner in the early primaries, blacks then got onboard. Cain may be guilty of sexual harassment. That's no laughing matter. Black or white, that's a problem. Margaret's earlier analysis, Andra Gillespie, is she accurate?
GILLESPIE: Well, I kind of want to combine her question with the comment that was previously made. There's definitely public opinion evidence to suggest that views within the African-American community on social policy have moderated in the past 20 years, as blacks have become more affluent. But African-Americans as a group still remain largely vulnerable, not just in terms of income where they still lag whites in income or they still lag whites in college graduation rates, and where they severely lag whites in terms of wealth and where that wealth gap has widened as a result of the previous recession.
So the question kind of becomes - and the whole reason political psychologists study linked fate in general was to explain why affluent blacks weren't as Republican as their class status would have suggested that they would be. So as long as blacks still profess a belief that their fate is linked to the fates of other blacks, we're still going to see blacks supporting policies that are more liberal than their self-interest would predict. And they're going to support the Democratic Party at higher numbers than, perhaps, their perceived class status would predict according to conventional wisdom.
I also think that it's really important to (unintelligible) and to keep in mind that the types of questions that Congressman West is bringing up are questions that are absolutely being asked in African-American communities, and those debates are vigorous. But you're more likely to see that level of contestation not across the parties but within the party. And so, in particular, when I edited "Whose Black Politics," and I and a number of people contributed chapters to that volume, we were very interested in what happens when you have black Democrats running against each other, particularly younger black Democrats who levy the charges that Congressman West just laid out against older, more entrenched black incumbents. And so that's the guiding purpose behind much of the academic research that I conduct.
I would argue that you're more likely to see that type of debate within the Democratic Party than you are going to see it between black Democrats and black Republicans, even though I think the issues that Congressman West is bringing up are very important.
CONAN: Here's an email from Mariella(ph) in Savannah. I'm a Latina now living in Georgia where, in November 2010, people were still shocked that a Jewish candidate named Sam Olens, a Republican, broke through one of the oldest barriers in Georgia politics. The man who will be our next attorney general is the first Jewish candidate to win a statewide race in Georgia, and he did it as a member of a party whose Christian conservative base has not always been tolerant of religious nonconformity. Back to Herman Cain. The effect of his and other nonwhite people running will be real and ongoing in this nation. Fluid in motion, the more colors that we see in the political field, the better for us all, I think.
And, Allen West, we'll leave you the last 30 seconds to comment on that.
WEST: Well, I think that's absolutely right. And I don't know if you will see monolithic voting patterns. You know, I'll be very honest. What you in 2008 was President Obama, 95 - I guess, almost 97 percent of the black community voting that way. I think that, now, people are going to start evaluating based upon policies. And I think that is truly the graduate level that I'd like to see is where we're doing that type of objective assessment.
Look, I won in a congressional district out here that is 92 to 93 percent white Americans. And so, you know, we are able to, you know, bring our message into any community, and I think that that is what I hope that this country will start moving forward, to judge a person based upon their character, not their color, and also their ability to articulate the issues and the message.
CONAN: Congressman West, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.
WEST: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Allen West, Republican of Florida. Andra Wilson joined us from Emory University. Her book, "Whose Black Politics?: Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership." She joined us from MIT, and we thank her.
The Opinion Page up next. Iran on the Opinion Page. This is NPR News.
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